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CIO interview: Poli Avramidis, the General Council of the Bar

The Bar Council’s CIO is working to transform the organisation’s legacy approach to IT and turn it into a digital business

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Transforming a traditional organisation into a modern, digital business is a significant test. With support from his executive colleagues, Poli Avramidis is meeting that challenge head on and providing the General Council of the Bar with a platform for lasting change. 

Avramidis has led technology for the organisation, commonly known as the Bar Council, for just over 18 months. Operating from close to London’s legal heartland in Chancery Lane, the Bar Council is the professional association for barristers in England and Wales. 

The organisation was formed in 1894. Avramidis has gone to great lengths to protect that long and distinguished history, while also finding a way to update the Bar Council’s legacy approach to IT. He talks about professional and personal challenges in a coffee shop just a short stroll from his office. 

“It’s a terrific place to work,” he says. “The chief executive and director general are great to engage with. They quickly understood what I was trying to achieve. That sort of support from the top makes a huge difference when you’re a CIO who is trying to push business transformation through IT.”

Taking the lead on transformation

Avramidis’ interest in IT emerged as he completed his maths degree in Greece. After graduating, he worked in a range of technology areas for Greek firms, including development work on applications. He moved to the UK in 1988 to complete a Masters degree in IT and moved around different computing specialisms, including network and project management. 

His first CIO role came at Gwent Police in 1997. In June 2001, Avramidis took up the mantle at the British Medical Association (BMA), a role he fulfilled successfully for more than decade. He says strategic difference came from his focus on the information part of IT. During his time at the organisation, Avramidis worked hard to ensure the rest of his executive colleagues understood the critical role of the CIO. 

Avramidis left the BMA in mid-2014 and – after a short break – began working for the Bar Council in September. He initially joined the organisation as interim CIO and helped the organisation create its IT strategy. Avramidis found the organisation was struggling with a mismatch between IT capability and business objectives. 

“They had big issues to resolve in terms of information quality and technology systems,” he says. “IT and business were not correctly aligned. There were a number of disparate systems and there was a lack of integration. As a result, it was difficult for the executives to draw out useful management information.” 

These concerns with the existing IT setup were allied to a broader requirement to push business transformation. It became clear to board members at the Bar Council that they needed an experienced pair of hands. Avramidis provided the perfect fit – and he was offered the full time CIO role after two months. 

“I guess it’s a story that’s familiar to a lot of organisations,” he says, referring to the situation he found at the Bar Council. “Systems deteriorate over time and the people at the sharp end of the business don’t see the challenges until it’s too late. Recovering quickly can be difficult, so you need someone who can come in and take instant remedial action, provide sensible solutions and create a long-term vision.” 

Creating a shift in culture 

Avramidis created his IT strategy during his first month in situ. It might have been difficult to sell his plan for transformation to a board that had seen technology fail to deliver on its promises in the past – yet Avramidis worked hard to surmount any scepticism. 

“I had to present the information carefully to gain their trust,” he says. “As a new CIO, you have to overcome hurdles and instil confidence. Once the board buys into your vision, the rest of the C-suite starts to see that technology – when implemented correctly – can provide dramatic improvements to the rest of the business.” 

The organisation both represents and regulates the legal profession. These two strands encompass different dynamics and requirements; the first is goals-driven while the second involves transparency. Avramidis reckons his challenge is to provide technology that works across these two key areas. 

“Technology, in many ways, is the easy part,” he says. “There are lots of experts who will tell you how a specific system provides a solution to a business challenge. But the money you spend will be wasted, and the challenge will remain unsolved, if the business doesn’t use the technology you implement.” 

Being agile to create constant improvements 

Avramidis says quick wins helped demonstrate the power of change. He refers to the introduction of a database system that helped internal staff administer regulations. The technology was implemented in less than three months and was delivered well below budget. 

Another quick win came via improvements to the organisation’s information architecture. Avramidis says the enhancements helped highlight the importance of system integration. Data was described in detail, and the processes associated to information collection were refined and automated. The analysis allowed Avramidis and his team to eliminate systems that were not being used. 

“The first 18 months has been all about focusing the minds of key stakeholders on the potential benefits of an investment in IT,” he says. “We want to engage them and show that the right approach to technology is productive and it delivers the results the business demands.” 

Such engagement represents a marked shift from the traditional approach to IT implementation. Rather than executives in the Bar Council leaving development to the IT team, line-of-business managers are involved in both the decision-making and the implementation process. 

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“My contribution comes in the form of shaping this joined-up approach, so that what we create works for the rest of the business,” says Avramidis. Small, constant improvements to existing systems have been allied to the introduction of agile project management. Rather than lengthy implementations, the IT team focuses on short, iterative cycles.

“It’s been the first time that business people at the Bar Council have been involved in the design of systems,” says Avramidis. “Internal customers understand what the technology will deliver and how it will improve operations. The end result is that we’ve been able to deliver technology quicker, and of a higher quality, that really meets business requirements.” 

Building new services on solid foundations

Avramidis is pleased with progress. With the platform for change complete, he is eager to move onto the next stage of IT-led business transformation. “It’s been a very successful journey so far,” he says. 

“We’re a year and a half into my plan and I think we’re in a great position. We’ve proved the strategy and vision is correct and we’ve also delivered a lot of benefits to the business. More importantly, we’ve set the foundations for the next period of change.” 

Avramidis has appointed an external technology partner to help with project scoping. He expects to soon have a roadmap for the second stage of transformation across enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and front-end systems. The organisation is using Microsoft Dynamics as its platform for change. 

“We want to create a single source of truth,” says Avramidis. “We also want to develop a single, integrated solution for the entire organisation. This movement is taking place through a combination of in-house development and the cloud. Our long-term intention is that anyone in the organisation can access our applications from any location, regardless of device.” 

Supporting a move towards flexible working 

According to Avramidis, the Bar Council is also developing what it calls a Work Smart strategy. Through this approach, individuals are supported in their attempts to work flexibly, either out on the road or working from home. “The underlying technology must support our move towards flexibility,” he says. 

The Work Smart strategy extends to the C-suite. Avramidis lives in Cardiff and commutes to London midweek. He tries to get as much work completed away from the office as possible, and often spends two or three days a week working flexibly. 

A flexible working strategy helps your business to attract new expertise

Poli Avramidis, the General Council of the Bar

“Sometimes you have to change your plans and come to the head office. But the flexibility is great – and it works both ways,” says Avramidis. It’s a key initiative for the organisation. We want to help people work from home. Modern technology allows capable individuals to contribute from any location.” 

“A flexible working strategy helps your business to attract new expertise, including talented developers from global locations. As long as the person is working hard, businesses shouldn’t care where the employee is based. Being open to flexible working opens up great possibilities for the individual and the organisation – and the Bar Council is keen to make a difference.” 

Looking to the future 

Avramidis looks back at his first 18 months working for the Bar Council and says he continues to enjoy the challenge of using IT to help transform the business. With the foundations for change complete, Avramidis is working hard to ensure technology helps the organisation achieve its aims. 

“It’s fantastic that the executives at the organisation have really bought into my vision,” he says. “I work with some terrific people, and I’ve given them some tangible and intangible benefits. We’ve achieved a great deal and it’s an excellent place to work.” 

The second stage of the Bar Council’s technology transformation is due to be complete by the end of 2017. Avramidis believes the organisation will benefit from a cut in IT spending and reduced system complexity. Other plus points will include the creation of trustworthy management information and the ability to generate tailored marketing knowledge.

“If I can achieve those targets, it will be a huge step forwards from where the organisation found itself a couple of years ago,” says Avramidis.

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